Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hard Times and Small Victories

A recent development in Portland's ongoing war against poor residents is good news for the latter group.

A federal judge struck down the city's recently enacted ban on panhandling on median strips last week, calling the ordinance unconstitutional. In his decision, U.S. District Judge George Singal claimed the ordinance, in addition to prohibiting panhandlers' First Amendment rights to free speech, is not content neutral since it still allows political candidates to place signs in median strips. The City Council passed the sweeping ordinance last summer in a 6-0 vote.

Councilors and city officials claimed the ordinance was necessary to protect both panhandlers and motorists from harm. But none of them offered any substantive evidence that vehicular accidents have increased in the city as a result of panhandlers' presence on busy median strips.

In fact, a brief report from ABC affiliate, WMTW-8 (06/13/2013) observed, "While numbers of calls for service to police because of people in the median have gone up, it's not clear whether anybody has actually been hurt because of people standing in the median of roads."

Judge Singal was right to throw this misguided law out. From the beginning it was asinine.

As I pointed out after the ordinance's passage, even if left unchallenged it would have done nothing to eliminate or even reduce the practice of panhandling in the city--assuming that was its intent. Indeed, median strip panhandlers have remained a steady presence in Portland, even after the law's passage. And Portland Police, by their own admission, never strictly enforced the ordinance, probably because they have more pressing priorities to attend to.

This suggests to me it is the city's yuppie, upper-middle class residents, and the members of the various neighborhood association groups which actively pushed the ordinance, that truly have a problem with desperate, poor people begging in the streets--not the police.

What bothered me from the beginning about this ordinance--aside, that is, from its blatant free speech incursions--was its cloying disingenuousness. City officials' argument that in order to keep panhandlers safe we need to kick them out of visible roadways and highly trafficked areas, smacks of liberal elitism. It recalls Bill Clinton's empty, "I feel your pain," sound bite.

Let's get real: This ordinance was never about seriously addressing the poverty, homelessness, and outright desperation that lead one to literally beg on the streets for money. It was to placate the callous, easily offended sensibilities of the city's upper-middle class business elite. As Portland Daily Sun columnist, and 2013 Green Party City Council candidate, Chris Shorr notes in his recent editorial (02/13/2014), "...just because people's naïve, delicate view of the world might be altered by the realities of poverty doesn't give us the right to force marginalized people into the shadows."

The median strip debate is part of an ongoing trend here in Portland and throughout the country with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. One can draw a direct line between the city's crackdown on panhandling, and the controversial sale of Congress Square Park to an out-of-state corporation.

Congress Square Park has long been a popular hangout for Portland's homeless, mentally ill, and destitute. Many of these individuals suffer from schizophrenia, head injury, alcoholism or drug addiction. They often have no family or friends to care for them. A number of them are veterans of America's imperial adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Having served their "patriotic duty" in the military, they are now promptly thrust aside, out of sight and out of mind of the rest of us who know nothing of the horrors of war.

Others lost their homes due to mounting medical bills--the number one cause of home foreclosure. The U.S. remains the only nation in the industrialized world that relies on a for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. Even post-invasion Iraq has universal, single-payer health care. (And no, Obamacare is not universal health care. I wish it were too, but calling it such does not make it so.)

Yes, some of the park's regulars become vulgar, even violent at times. Contrary to popular belief, Portland is a city, and, unfortunately, cities tend to attract their share of "undesirable" elements. Middle class residents who do not want to deal with such public behavior would be better suited living in Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth or my hometown of Kennebunk.

But I know I am not alone in my suspicion that the now delayed sale of Congress Square Park, in addition to bringing the city more revenue (supposedly) and new jobs (again, supposedly), will also have the added benefit of "cleaning up" the area from what one prominent local reporter calls the "worst order of street people."

Indeed, Mayor Michael Brennan and city officials seem hell-bent on turning Portland into the next Kennebunkport, a yuppie, tourist destination with ample parking lots, events centers, swanky hotels and cruise lines. And we certainly can't have tourists seeing any homeless people begging on street corners, can we?

Regardless of what one thinks of the ever increasing presence of panhandlers in Portland, the fact remains this law did nothing to address the root causes of poverty. Despite what Scott Pelley or Brian Williams may tell you, this country is still in the grip of a devastating recession--the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We are, furthermore, witnessing a vast, unprecedented transference of income in which the top one percent controls 43 percent of the nation's wealth.

Is it any wonder we are seeing more Americans begging for spare change?

But what do I know, right? I mean, these people chose to live on the streets, didn't they? Poverty, like homosexuality, is simply a lifestyle choice, isn't it? These moochers have clearly never worked for anything in their lives. We Americans can have anything--anything!--we want, if only we work hard, apply ourselves, do what we are told, and, most importantly, never question the world around us. Isn't that the American Dream?

It is curious--striking, really--how little these attitudes toward the poor have changed since Charles Dickens's time. Perhaps literature's greatest champion of the poor, particularly the plight of poor children, Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times is a scathing satire of the super rich and their snobbish, callous indifference toward the poor residents of the fictional Coketown.

In the novel, the wealthy, self-absorbed industrialist Mr. Bounderby accuses his union-agitating workers of expecting "to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon," when, of course, they have demanded nothing of the kind. Bounderby, who constantly touts his purportedly "self-made" status and "penniless childhood," (a story which, it turns out, has been greatly exaggerated) lambastes the noble, hard-working Stephen Blackpool for desiring a divorce from his loveless, alcoholic wife. Yet he has no difficulty abruptly ending his own marriage, essentially walking out on his young trophy wife, toward the novel's end. Such action reveals the rank hypocrisy and double-standards of the rich.

Stephen, though uneducated, nonetheless starkly sums up the plight of the working-poor to Mr. Bounderby with his poignant observation:

Look how we live an' where we live, an' in what numbers, an' by what chances an' with what sameness; an' look how the mills is [always] a-goin', and how they never works us no nigher to [any] distant object--'ceptin' [always] Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up with your deputations to Secretaries of State 'bout us, and how you are alwus right and how we are alwus wrong and never had no reason in us [since] ever we were born.... Who can you look on it sir, and fairly not tell a man, 'tis not a muddle? 

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